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elizabeth-(1998)-large-pictureBWLast week I watched Elizabeth for the first time – and was more than a little bewildered by the script.

At one point, there is this scene in which Father John Ballard, SJ, lands in England,  met by a bunch of Catholic conspirators – among whom he immediately spots out a very young Thomas Elyot. Recognising him as an agent of the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, Father Ballard proceeds without further ado to kill the lad with his bare hands. Bad, bad Catholics! And in fact all Catholics are very, very evil in this film, made ruthless by fanaticism and/or a lust for power – whereas the occasional ruthless Protestant is just protecting Queen and country…

Yes, well – but this is not the point. The point is that the scene I have described is supposed to happen ca. 1570, when the real John Ballard was still a student at Caius College, Cambridge, and the real Thomas Elyot had been dead for some twenty-five years*…

And I truly have to ask: why?

Thomas Elyot - ca. 1490-1546

Thomas Elyot – ca. 1490-1546

I know a movie is not a history book, and screenwriters are bound to make matters as simple and as dramatic as they can – but while I can see the reason for, say, blackening the villains, I don’t get the name-dropping at all.

After all, those who know about Ballard and Elyot will immediately realise that neither could have been on that shore in 1570 – and get much puzzled – while those who don’t know, just don’t know anyway. And wouldn’t everyone be either much happier or just as happy with two fictional characters filling the roles of the Fanatic Jesuit and the Loyal & Doomed Queen’s Man? Why, why, oh – why the anachronistic name-dropping?

And Ballard & Elyot are just one especially obvious instance among many.

My mother joined me in watching more or less half-way through the movie and, after trying to puzzle out who was who and did what, got herself helplessly entangled.

Actually Ballard went about under the soldierly alias of Captain Fortescue

Actually Ballard went about under the soldierly alias of Captain Fortescue

“And yet I do have a smattering of English history…” she groused.

But you know what? I think she would have been happier without that smattering – because knowing who should have been who and done what and when, is just what kept us both from enjoying the movie. We might have gone along with the story, hadn’t we known how much it did not match history…

And yes, there is always dramatic licence – but what I can’t see for the life of me is the screenwriters’ purpose. All the moving around of events and characters doesn’t seem to serve any dramatic need in particular – so I’ll end by asking it again: why, oh why?


* Before you ask: yes, the Thomas Elyot had three sons – one of them also named Thomas, born in 1529, and therefore still too old to be the very young man in the movie. Then a grandson, perhaps? Technically (and fictionally) possible – though it makes for a rather cumbersome back-story for a character who speaks perhaps twice… Cumbersome and not terribly useful, either.